Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Graffiti in Galleries

This past weekend notorious graffiti artist Ishmael enjoyed exposure at Kulture Klash 3 and his solo show opening at Eye Level Art in Charleston. This is his first show as a gallery artist working on canvas instead of illegal graffiti art as well as a major point of departure from recognizable graffiti to sinewy abstract forms that look, to me, to be inspired more by current graphic design than anything else. I thought the two influences, graffiti and commercial design, were interesting: two outside art forms, one delegitimized by money and commerce, the other deligitimized by lack thereof, both a form of branding and reinvention of oneself, both covering the outside world and signifying some sort of ownership over that small section of street. It seems natural that the two should meet in a gallery-- the traditional fault line between lands of Haves and Have-Nots.

In addition to artists like Keith Haring and Bansky, I'm reminded of a similar show by a notorious (and recently released from jail) graffiti artist and art student at the Corcoran who goes by "Borf," in Washington, DC., in 2006. It was a similar point of departure, from illegal art to big pop-punk canvases in a gallery. So was he selling out, or what? As a fellow art student at the time I thought so, but then again selling in a gallery was my eventual goal, too, so what does that make me? And of course I was happy for him because he was putting his reputation to use and getting, more or less, his "big break." But money definitely took the edge off his work. The undeniably raw, daring, desperate and authentic aspect of graffiti on the streets disappears once the work is in a gallery, no matter how much the artists and dealers try to preserve it.

So what's left? At both shows I saw intense dedication to craft, either through labyrinthine swirls of shape or immaculately detailed stencil work; brilliant color and strong graphic impact; sophisticated symbolism; political dissent; homage to the artist's community; and a sense of the artist's life as a mythic story complete with obscured origins, remembrance, and a prophecy of rebirth. Interesting, too, was the way the artist's sincerity shone through.

In my opinion, the currency of postmodernity is irony; is a work offensive, or ironically offensive? primitive or ironically so? traditional or merely quoting tradition in an ironic context? In effect, is it hopelessly old-fashioned and completely sincere, or has it broken through to a postmodern time, enlightened through obscurity and emboldened by doubt? I don't want to condemn this trend, in fact I think irony is a brilliant way of dealing with a post-Vietnam, post-Clement Greenberg, post-Joseph McCarthy world in which every inherited ideology must be regarded with doubt. But as all major trends are, it is limiting. Great masters of doubt like Richard Prince and Damien Hirst may be enjoying a zeitgeist, but plenty of artists still feel, deep-down, a starry-eyed belief in Genius, a modernist hope for the Universal Experience, a romantic quest for Truth.

In Borf's and Ishmael's work, as well as many graffiti artists, I get a different sense of the dynamic unity of pure sincerity with acrid anger. I wouldn't really classify either artist's work as angry work because they're full of symbols of hope and of secret worlds existing outside of reality that hint to me of religion and spirituality. But this straightforward human quality is always wrapped up in angry political dissent, bitter laughter at the betrayal of authority and society at large, and defiance that helps sincerity survive in reality. I think it's a really interesting contrast to the Art World's esteem of irony, one that will enable this work to hold its own in a contemporary gallery.

And what does a collector buy when they buy this work? Obviously, they're buying something they don't have; in a sense, I think many people buy an attitude or experience that their life doesn't afford them as a way of participating in and supporting a movement or a way of life they admire but cannot experience. So in this case, in addition to buying a very beautiful and sincere piece of work, they've bought into the defiance, subversiveness, and energy that undermines the very status that someone who can afford this art likely enjoys. It's an uneasy alliance, but maybe one with unexpected and worthwhile outcomes.

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